The great American holiday, Black Friday, marks the beginning of the holiday shopping frenzy. At the top of most parents’ lists are children’s toys—be it the latest video games, coloring sets, dolls or action figures. Even as the toys and games become more elaborate (and expensive), one thing seems to remain the same: the gendered nature of children’s products. Having grown up in this gendered arena, I was the giddy recipient of many a Barbie doll, baby doll, and flowery art set (to be fair, my parents also gifted me less gendered items geared at learning, which were among my favorite presents). And the guys I know fondly remember unwrapping Tonka trucks, superheroes, and toy guns. But a recent toy catalog, distributed around Sweden, is flipping those standards on their head. The catalog totally reverses gender expectations—its pages contain little girls wielding toy machine guns and wearing blue, boys playing with dolls and wearing Hello Kitty tees. A representative explained that decision to alter the catalog reflects a changing market in Sweden, and a belief that toys don’t have to be for just girls or boys, but can appeal to all children.
While I’m not sure I’d support any child playing with a mock automatic weapon, I can definitely get behind the move to de-gender children’s entertainment. There is no doubt that our worlds are gendered from before we are even born. The announcement that, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” carries incredible weight in our society, where gender appears as a fundamental category of identity and experience. We are so concerned with gender that babies—who generally look the same—must be dressed in clothing that immediately asserts their gender, whether it is through color choice (pink for girls and blue for boys), or cute little slogans (like “Daddy’s princess” or “Little slugger”).
Some might think that it is ok for boys and girls to like different things. Of course it is. But we have to recognize that these preferences don’t emerge out of the unique personality of each child, but rather are molded by the incessant pressures of socializing influences. Moreover, these preferences are not valued equally, and thus, our children are placed into positions of dominance and subordination before they even know those words. Boys’ toys encourage activity, courage, strength, ingenuity and a sense of adventure, all of which carry high social value. These toys prepare them for careers in the public sphere—for leadership roles and science degrees, for example. Girls’ toys, on the other hand, teach girls domesticity, passivity, and superficiality, none of which are socially valued or rewarded. Girls learn that their place is in the home, taking care of husbands, houses, and babies. These differences in (learned) preferences produce different personalities, and encourage differential treatment of boys/men and girls/women by parents, teachers, friends, employers, and mates. In this way, the ways we play have lifelong consequences. (For more on how boys “play,” see here.)
The emphasis on these gendered products comes in part from our gender ideology and part from our capitalist motivations. When corporate geniuses realized that parents having second or third children were <gasp!> reusing baby items, they saw an opening for generating more profits. Here is the logic we were sold: Baby boys cannot possibly reuse their big sis’s sheets and onesies; dressing him in pink might turn him gay! Little girls should never wear their big bro’s PJs or play with his toys; she might never grow out of that tomboy phase and then become a lesbian. Ok, the messages aren’t quite so obvious, but this fear is imprinted in parents very early on and influences the way we are raised, and the people we become.
I won’t suggest that we can buy our way out of a rigid gender scheme. If capitalism is part of how we got into this mess, it can’t be the long term exit strategy. Indeed, this marketing strategy was probably less a political statement for gender neutrality, and more a new way to generate profits. But I think, in the short term at least, children can benefit from the message this catalog sends. (I’ve discussed the problem of balancing long and short term strategies for dealing with gender inequality here.) If it encourages parents to reward boys’ caretaking instincts, or girls’ sense of adventure, the next generation might be a little better off. And I think it could encourage us all to think of new ways to imagine children’s worlds, to challenge the simplistic binary that has governed us for so many generations, perhaps, even, to make gender nonconformity fun. That’s my Christmas wish.
Goldberg, Abbie E., Deborah A. Kashy and JuliAnna Z. Smith. 2012. Gender-Typed Play Behavior in Early Childhood: Adopted Children with Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Parents. Sex Roles 67(9-10): 503-515.